Former state Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala was found guilty of two felonies today and is headed to jail. Under the plea agreement presented to Dane County Judge David Flanagan this morning, Chvala pleaded guilty to misconduct in office and arranging illegal campaign contributions.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors and Chvala's defense team agreed to recommend a six-month jail sentence, two years probation and a fine of up to $5,500. Judge Flanagan is not bound by that recommendation when he sentences Chvala in early December, and could sentence him to as much as five years in prison for the two felonies. In sentencing Chvala, the judge needs to think of the message he will be sending to the Capitol and the people of Wisconsin. The harsher the punishment, the stronger the message.
Chvala was charged in October 2002 with 20 felonies, including extortion. More than a year earlier, the Democracy Campaign obtained a confidential memo from a prominent lobbyist to his special interest clients detailing how Chvala would "not look favorably upon groups" that did not meet his demands for campaign contributions. We made the memo public and then followed up with research showing that the special interest donors changed their giving patterns in response to Chvala's demands.
News coverage of the revelations soon turned into calls for an investigation. The criminal probe of Chvala, already implicated in the caucus scandal involving the misuse of state offices and staffers for electioneering purposes, expanded to include the allegations of pay to play.
The criminal complaint against Chvala also detailed a Tom DeLay-style money laundering scheme that routed corporate contributions that are illegal in Wisconsin through out-of-state committees and back to a front group Chvala directed to benefit Senate candidates he favored. The Democracy Campaign and the national Center for Responsive Politics first blew the whistle on the shadowy operation back in 1999 and later provided state investigators information about the activities as they conducted a probe that ultimately led to the criminal charges against Chvala.
Based on what we know about Chvala's dealings, he deserves more than six months in jail with work release privileges. Having said that, here's hoping the fact that one of the most powerful politicians in Wisconsin is now a convicted felon will serve as a wake-up call to the new bosses at the Capitol and citizens who have retreated from public life. If there ever has been a time when citizens need to reengage in public affairs, this is it.